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Global Warming Expected to Hit Poor the Hardest

January 03, 2008

The potential human costs of climate change have been underestimated, says the recently released United Nations Development Program 2007-2008 Human Development Report.

Calling global climate change the defining development challenge of the 21st century, the report stresses that it could leave hundreds of millions of the poorest citizens in the poorest countries malnourished and lacking adequate supplies of safe drinking water, as well as facing ecological threats and a loss of livelihoods.

UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis says it is the poor "a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs."

Focusing on the impact of global warming on the world's 2.6 billion people surviving on less than $2 a day, the report, Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world, identified potential consequences human development including:

  • Up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition due to the breakdown of agricultural systems resulting from increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall.
  • Potential productivity losses of 26 percent by 2060 in semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world.
  • An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.
  • Up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas potentially displaced by flooding and tropical storm activity, including more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians.
  • Emerging health risks, with as many as 400 million people facing the risk of malaria.

Authors of the report urge industrialized countries to provide leadership by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

To accomplish the reduction of carbon emissions, the report advocates a mix of carbon taxation, more stringent cap-and-trade programs, energy regulation and international cooperation on financing for low-carbon technology transfer.

The report calls on rich countries to place climate change adaptation at the center of international partnerships on poverty reduction.

"We are issuing a call to action, not providing a counsel of despair," says Kevin Watkins, lead author of the report.  "Working together with resolve, we can win the battle against climate change.  Allowing the window of opportunity to close would represent a moral and political failure without precedent in human history."

According to the report, climate shocks such as droughts, floods and storms, which will become more frequent and intense with climate change, are already among the most powerful drivers of poverty and inequality - and global warming will strengthen the impacts.

"For millions of people, these are events that offer a one-way ticket to poverty and long-run cycles of disadvantage," says the report.

Apart form threatening lives and inflicting suffering, they wipe out assets, lead to malnutrition, and result in children being withdrawn from school.  For example, the report finds that Ethiopian children exposed to a drought in early childhood are 36 percent more likely to be malnourished, a figure that translates into two million additional cases of child malnutrition.

In addition to the impact on the world's poor, the report cautions that failure to tackle climate change could leave future generations facing ecological catastrophe, highlighting the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheets, the retreat of glaciers, and the stress on marine ecosystems a systemic threats to humanity.

"Fighting climate change is about our commitment to human development today and about creating a world that will provide ecological security for our children and their grandchildren," Dervis said.

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